New French law on Internet piracy meets skepticism

President Nicolas Sarkozy's governing party rejoiced when it muscled one of his pet projects through the French parliament: an unprecedented law to cut the Internet connections of people who repeatedly download music and movies illegally.

Sarkozy's victory last week, however, has not won France leadership in Europe's fight against Internet piracy. The government controls needed to enforce the law have unnerved other European nations while legal challenges at home and opposition in the European Parliament could derail it.

Music, film and other industry groups welcomed the French law; John Kennedy, chairman and CEO of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, says it represents a "sea change."

Critics, however, worry about potential invasive state monitoring of citizens.

"We should be careful about interfering with the freedom of exchange of information," said Wolfgang Zankl, professor at the University of Vienna and president of the European Center for E-Commerce. "This is a constitutional right which no one should be barred from."

Some Internet experts say the law will be technically impossible to apply. It denies accused pirates the chance to contest charges before their Web connections are severed, and legal experts say it will not stand up in court.

The measure's first short-term test comes in the next 30 days. On Tuesday, the opposition Socialists took the law before the Constitutional Council, the body that ensures the constitutionality of French legislation. The council has a month to issue a ruling.

If the council decides the law does not violate the constitution, it could take effect by summer.

The key provisions would be graduated reprisals against alleged offenders. If a suspected pirate fails to heed e-mail and written warnings, Internet access could be cut for a period of two months to a year — while the user keeps paying for the service under the contract's terms.

Christine Albanel, the French culture minister, foresees cutting 1,000 Internet connections every day and sending 13,000 warnings to first- or second-time offenders.

Even before the French proposal became law, it encountered resistance in the European Parliament. Elections to a new parliament take place in early June, and the fight for Internet freedom has become a campaign issue in some countries, first and foremost in Sweden, which has gained a reputation as a hub for illegal file-sharing.

Support for Sweden's Pirate Party, which calls for legalization of file-sharing, is growing, and a poll published three weeks ago shows the party could gain a seat in the European Parliament.

Christian Engstrom, Pirate Party nominee for parliament, said the French law is damaging to the free exchange of information on the Internet. "The fact that they evade the rule of law and work together with a greedy copyright industry is not fitting for a Western democracy," Engstrom said in a statement.

Once a new European Parliament is seated, in July at the earliest, one of its tasks will be to take up a package of telecommunications' reforms. The EU assembly already threw out a compromise this year reached with governments that would have allowed France to implement its law.

At that point, lawmakers reinstated an earlier demand that "no restriction may be imposed on the fundamental rights and freedoms of ... users, without prior ruling by judicial authorities." That debate is sure to come up again in the next EU parliament session.

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